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Retrotech: The R&D then and now

Ben Goad senior tax manager
Associate Director
(Last updated on )
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retrotech and r&d tax credits
Retrotech is on the rise. Nostalgic returns to once loved technologies that have been rendered near obsolete by innovation over the decades. Sometimes retrotech is a revival of the original technology, other times it is a reimagining of bygone products using modern design techniques, materials and processes.

Perhaps the most high profile among a string of tech comebacks is that of the fabled Nokia 3310, announced earlier this year. This return of a classic prompted us to look at other examples of retrotech that are popular right now. Exploring what was innovative about them at the time, and checking out areas of R&D that may have gone into their revival.

Retrotech and R&D tax credits

If you are developing retrotech (sometimes spelled retrotec) products, you should find out whether you can receive funding in the form of R&D tax credits. This government tax incentive rewards innovative businesses for their research and development and is worth more than £50,000 a year on average to qualifying SMEs.

Typical examples of R&D that might qualify for R&D tax credits when developing retrotech include:

  • Integrating new computer hardware, for instance processors, RAM and storage into old technology
  • Updating user interfaces
  • Experimenting with new materials
  • Introducing power saving or performance enhancing functionality
  • Keeping production lines that manufacture old technologies open with bespoke fixes
  • Innovative use of new manufacturing processes like 3D printing and multi-axis machining

So, with plenty of scope for R&D in the retro technology sector, let’s take a look at some of the most exciting areas right now.

1.      Retrotech phones

In the news:

  • A new version of Nokia’s classic 3310 was announced in early 2017 by brand owner HMD Global. The original sold more than 100 million units and was known for its long battery life (two weeks) and rugged, durable quality. The new version will have an even longer battery life, be about 40% lighter, feature a similar turn-of-the-millennium look and have vastly stripped down functionality compared to the smartphone flag-bearers of 2017.
  • Another blast from the past comes in the form of BlackBerry’s KeyOne. BlackBerry have gone back to their roots and launched a new smartphone in 2017 with a physical keyboard. Pitched at the premium end of the market, they hope that the device will strike the right note with customers who made it king of the phone hill more than a decade ago.

What is innovative – now and then?

  • At face value the new Nokia 3310 may not seem that innovative. After all, it is stripping out much of the phone market’s innovations of the last 15 years. However, looking to its strengths – long battery life and new light weight, these are both areas of continuous innovation. For instance, to lengthen battery life, research may go into the battery itself, but also into optimising the phone’s functions to use less power.
  • Research in Motion enjoyed great success with BlackBerry by being the first to mass-market with email technology in phones. In a pre-touchscreen era, this was why their physical keyboards were so crucial to their success. It is a different world now, and research and development is likely to focus on how to blend a physical keyboard with a touch screen to make for a good user experience.

2.      Retrotech cars

In the news

  • The automotive sector is looking far more to the future than the past: driverless cars, Internet of Things (IoT) and green technologies are examples of what attention is focused on. But there is a niche market for restoring, maintaining and even modernising vintage cars.

What is innovative – now and then?

  • Innovation in the car industry is so huge we are not going to scratch the surface of it here. Materials, engine technology, aerodynamics, fuels and safety are just some of the top-level areas of research.
  • However, when it comes to restoring vintage cars there are some interesting areas of innovation to do with the process and manufacture of parts. Retrotech, a British company based in Bicester, are experts in this field.

They use the latest technologies in laser scanning, 3D printing and multi-axis machining to revolutionise the manufacture of specialist parts. This is important because such parts would have been mass-produced cost-effectively decades ago, but are now simply no longer available. With these new technologies, they can be modelled in just hours and produced at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing with the use of 3D stereolithographic printers.

3.      Retrotech music audio

In the news

  • You can’t help but have noticed the resurgence of vinyl records in the news. 2016 saw the best UK sales for the format in 25 years with 3.2 million records being sold. While this is still dwarfed by CD and album download sales (47.3 million and 18.1 million albums respectively) those formats are plunging in popularity – streaming is the new top dog.
  • And hot on the heels of vinyl records’ new found retro audio popularity come cassette tapes. In 2016 they saw a 74% boost in sales. Leading artists like Eminem, Justin Beiber and Kanye West have led the way in releasing on the format, and they are being sold in fashion chain Urban Outfitters

What is innovative – now and then?

  • The underlying technology behind vinyl records can be traced right back to Edison and the creation of the phonograph. The 20th century success of the vinyl format was down to mass-production techniques. Nowadays related research and development is more likely to centre on the record players with design-led innovation and wireless connectivity.

Crowd funding sites have been a popular way to get desirable turntables built. One of the latest ones is from Dutch family-business Miniot. It has raised more than €50,000 to build an elegant record player called The Wheel. This minimalist design plays the record upside down, therefore housing the delicate mechanics internally.

  • The tech within cassette tapes is magnetic recording and used to be prevalent across many markets including VHS video and computer storage like floppy disks. Magnetic recording has long since been superseded by digital. However, an interesting R&D angle is in their current manufacture. How do you meet a sudden surge in demand for a product that was apparently in terminal decline?

National Audio Company (NAC), the largest cassette manufacturer in America, has stockpiled dozens of pieces of heavy machinery from which it can take parts to keep its production line running. Manufacturing business combining new and old machinery, or developing new components, to make an appreciable improvement in their output, could well be doing activity that would qualify for R&D tax credits.

4.      Retrotech videogame consoles

In the news

  • Nintendo has released their classic NES console from the 80s in a new mini-format, and supply cannot keep up with demand.
  • Sega have licensed the rights to their 16-bit Mega Drive console to AT Games who produce a new mini version.

What is innovative – then and now?

  • Sega and Nintendo ruled the home videogame roost from the late 80s and through the 90s. Successive generations of console (commonly defined by the number of bits) pushed technological boundaries. The NES was of the 8-bit generation and the Mega Drive of the 16-bit generation.
  • The new mini retro systems have been produced in different ways. The Sega system is an emulator produced by a third-party manufacturer, whilst the mini NES is made in-house by Nintendo. R&D in developing these products may have involved exploring the impact of modern technology on old design – for instance they are both able to now be built much smaller than their original counterparts.
  • They are both a curious mix of old and modern technology. For example the Mega Drive mini has modern wireless controllers, a slot for the original game cartridges, 80 built-in games, but old AV connection cables. The Nintendo has old-style wired controllers, modern HDMI connections, no slot for game cartridges but the facility to save games which the original did not have.
  • Less successful attempts to re-develop old video games consoles – such as the Sinclair Vega+ – highlight the technical difficulties and uncertainties in producing this retro technology. It is reported that the IndieGoGo funded Vega+ has been beset with problems including firmware and hardware issues. A reminder that even when working with long established retrotech, you might still be resolving technological uncertainty. This is one of the key eligibility criteria for an R&D tax credit claim.

5. Other retrotech

In the news

  • Appearing on our Facebook news feeds have been funky digital sundials that use the sun as a backlight to project a digital time reading onto a surface below.
  • The world of photography has been excited by Kodak’s imminent launch of its retrotech Super 8 camera.

What is innovative – then and now

  • Sundials are one of the earliest examples of technology being used by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. Everyone is familiar with the concept of casting a shadow onto a marked surface to give a time reading.

A French engineer has developed a sundial for the digital age. Using the concept of analogue pixels and 3D printing techniques he has created a sundial that projects a digital time reading. Impressive stuff. However, demonstrating the technological challenge of such a feat it can only tell the time between 10am and 4pm and in 20 minute intervals. Check it out:

  • The original Kodak Super 8 revolutionised amateur filmmaking by stripping out the hassles of using 16mm film, whilst providing great image quality. It is attributed with setting Steven Spielberg on the path of filmmaking.
  • Kodak has promised to relaunch the much-loved technology in 2017 with a modern twist. As well as major retro design cues, the new camera will shoot on classic 8mm film. Users will then send this back to Kodak to be converted to digital. But Kodak are adding many features you would expect to see on a modern camera, including an LCD screen, mini HDMI ports and SD card slots.

Are you developing retrotech?

As we have seen, retrotech can face many technical design challenges. From integrating new technology into classic products to using new manufacturing techniques to make production possible.

If you are working in this field, you should check your company’s eligibility for R&D tax credits. ForrestBrown has one of the largest teams of chartered tax advisers specialising in R&D tax credits in the UK. We are experts in identifying qualifying R&D activity and will build your claim using our award-winning process. To find out how we can help you with R&D tax credits, call us on 0117 926 9022.